My answer will be limited by two constraints. First, I don’t know what it is like to be you, so I will inevitably miss certain points of difference. Second, I don’t know what it is like to be me. Experiencing my conscious existence and remembering it are two different things, and expressing it is something different altogether. That’s three constraints. I lied.
Given these difficulties, I will now try, as best I can, to give you some sense of what I experience on a continuous basis, being identical with myself.
First of all, I think in a constant monologue. Perhaps you do too. It is on basically from the moment I wake up, to the moment I disappear into sleep. It may be going on whilst I dream, my memory is not reliable enough to answer that with any certainty. If I sit down to write, then the monologue – which speaks in an entirely neutral tone automatically, but can take on an accent if I wish it to – will slow down to my typing pace, which is considerably slower than my speaking or reading or thinking pace.
As I type, my monologue speaks with me. As I read, it speaks with me. When I am alone, I often speak it out loud because it is more effort to keep it silent and internal than to let it out. And because I love the sound of my own voice. Those people you sometimes see talking or shouting at nobody in the streets? A lot of them are probably vocalising their inner monologue. YouTubers? They’re letting their inner monologue out. People who talk a lot about the same subjects? Monologing. Monolinguists.
I’m not a psychologist and I won’t pretend to have the final answer on what the monologue is or how it comes about, but I believe that it is a vital part of what makes me me.
Often the monologue turns into music, which is another fairly continuous element of my experience. At the moment it’s the car wash song. The underlying rhythm and tone of a song is almost universally in the background for me.
Since four years ago I also have tinnitus – a high pitched ringing in my ears, like the sound of a television on standby. The tinnitus is different from the music or the monologing, in that it sounds to me identical as if there is actually a high-pitched noise in the world. The monologue and the music, by contrast, are not the same as actual noises out in the world. The tinnitus is more intermittent, somewhere between 50% and 90% of the time I am awake. Sometimes I can’t hear it, either because it has resided, or because I can’t make it out amongst other sounds I can hear at the time. I have tinnitus in my dreams.
Second, I have a more limited ability to visualise images. I can’t “see” any memories or imaginings to the same fidelity as I can “hear” words or music, and I certainly don’t see a stream of ‘inner’ images constantly when I walk down the street as I do hear a stream of ‘inner’ words.
Third, my body is generally united in purpose. Most of the time it is solid and responsive. It does not weigh me down, or tense up uncomfortably or generally emote in ways that are unhelpful. My hands are sometimes inaccurate, missing the keys I tell them to press, but not to an extreme degree. Sometimes when I try to hit a tennis ball, I see the right movement to make, and my arm simply fails to make that move. Occasionally,when doing a maths sum, I will visualise one number, but I will ‘hear’ my inner monologue say another. The inner monologue is almost always wrong in these cases.
Fourth, I am very rarely sad. My mood is generally either directed purpose, or happy realisation. My “highs” come with realising things or coming up with new takes on things. Sometimes tiredness takes over and I have less energy.
I have generally cried less and less as I have got older, changing from a child who would cry quite dramatically, to an adult who has cried perhaps once in the past two years. Those times that I did cry, I was not devastatingly sad.
I have been sad more often in the past, and it took the form of a sort of heavy weight and longing to hold onto something that is not around.
I do get angry, and that takes the form of me raising my voice and swearing a lot. I get angry almost exclusively with inanimate objects, and of those, I am nearly always angry with a computer not doing what I want it to/what I believe I told it to.
I shout a lot, and I am generally not aware when I do it. Do tell me if I shout, I won’t be offended. I need to shout less.
I am not regularly stressed, but when I am, I feel it in my chest and – this may be unusual – in my crotch. I am more inclined to be stressed about things progressing to slowly/being to boring, than about there being too much going on.
Fifth, I rarely “switch off”. I learned as a child to sit through church services, but I hated them, and I still do. Church, like bad movies or padded-out TV shows, is unbearably boring. I need everything to be constantly stimulating. I can grind on a game (although less than I used to), as long as it involves a lot of little decisions I can think on.
My hands, too, are interminable fidgets. A phone or a portable console will keep them occupied.
That’s me. I hope you feel ever-so-slightly enlightened by this article.
In my last post, I discussed sequels, and why we should be open-minded about them. Today, in the sequel to last week’s piece, I’m going to pick apart Portal and Portal 2 to see why they work so well. I’m going to first discuss the puzzles first, and then the characters.
Both games do an amazing job of layering lessons in an accessible way. Consider the progression path for each of the early testing chambers in Portal:
- You walk around a small enclosed room and can do nothing else apart from picking up objects for a minute. Then a portal opens to a visible area outside the room and you walk to the exit.
- Portals that switch location allow you to enter one room to collect a cube and another room to place the cube on a button. Then you walk to the exit.
- You wait for a portal to be opened, then you pick up the portal gun and use it to open one portal. Then you walk to the exit. You can only fire one portal type – blue – and the orange portals are pre-set within the room.
- You use the portal gun to hop through a portal. Then you use it to hop out the other way at the other end. Then you walk to the exit. You can still only fire blue portals.
- You use the portal gun to pick up a cube that you can place on a button. Again, you can only fire blue portals at this stage. Then you walk to the exit.
Portal‘s escalation is incremental, and only ever introduces one new aspect of play to each new room. The game avoids a tedious tutorial, and through play the player will eventually learn all the puzzling possibilities of the portal gun. And these possibilities are complex. By the end of the game the player is using momentum to throw objects huge distances, placing portals whilst in mid-air to reach places otherwise unavailable and redirecting dangerous objects to activate switches. The later puzzles would be fiendishly difficult to work out without all the training given over the first part of the game. But the player gets there because the game is paced so well according to their current level of skill.
Not only is there an incremental progression of challenge level, there are also very few “filler” levels in either game – especially Portal. At almost every stage, the player learns something new. It is a difficult balance to pull off and both games do it admirably.
Portal’s later puzzles are more technically difficult than those in Portal 2 – some involving the need for quick reactions several times in a row. For instance, having to jump over multiple deadly lasers in a tunnel with multiple moving platforms. Portal 2′s are more varied with the addition of special gels that change the properties of surfaces, extendable light beams, and refracting cubes that redirect lasers, to give just a few examples. This difference reflects the fact that Portal was an original, short, speculative, relatively low-budget puzzle game marketed mainly to PC Steam users. They wanted a unique and cerebral challenge in their 2 hours of play. Portal 2 was created as a mass-market, big-budget game with celebrity performers and so was necessarily more varied, bigger and more accessible.
But enough about puzzles. Let’s talk characters, and why Portal 2‘s story is more interesting than Portal‘s.
Underground Robot Opera
Portal is the innovator. Along with the rest of the Orange Box, it proved that Valve could make fantastic games that weren’t Half-Life or spin-offs from Half-Life mods. It was never expected to be the massive hit that it was. As a two-hour puzzle game, it is basically note-perfect. It’s got an interesting, unique setting. A fun, surprising antagonist. Great jokes. And that twist. Those things together, and the fact it was packaged together with two Half-Life 2 mini-sequels, and Team Fortress 2, the most beautiful and brilliantly marketed shooter at that time, led it to blow up into the pop-culture phenomenon that it is. Well done Portal.
But as a narrative, it’s quite simple, and it leaves you wanting a lot more. This isn’t bad, it’s just not a story with twists and turns in the way Portal 2 is.
The story of Portal is basically as follows; player wakes up in strange science facility. Computer leads player on series of increasingly challenging and life-threatening logic puzzles. Player discovers more and more disturbing elements to the facility and the computer. Computer tries to kill player. Player kills computer.
There is one turning point. That happens when GLaDOS, the evil computer antagonist, reveals that she is going to kill the player. It is pure twist and reflects the horror genre that Portal fits into. It is not a moment of great character depth, because the entire first half of the game has been telling you that it is going to happen, and because, apart from a few persuasion attempts by GLaDOS, neither the player nor GLaDOS is affected in any meaningful way by it.
The Wheel of Suffering
Compare Portal 2. Portal 2 is a dark comedy with tragic elements, rather than a horror game with a sense of humour. It is also much longer then Portal and so has more time to explore the various characters. It does this brilliantly, and the three major characters are given depth and complexity in a way few videogame characters are. Those characters are the super intelligent sadist AI GLaDOS, the megalomaniacal businessman Cave Johnson, and the idiot computer core Wheatley. The player is, in narrative terms, more of an observer than a true character. You simply portal your way to the next available area.
For GLaDOS, Portal 2 is a cyclical story of reincarnation and death. At the end of the last game, she was killed by the player. Since then, she has been conscious for possibly thousands of years in a black-box hell, reliving the two minutes of her death over and over. She is reanimated by the player, later to be transformed into a potato, another metaphor for rebirth. The player encounters this vegetable earlier in the game, growing seedily, rooting itself in the brittle, crumbling, skeletal remains of Aperture Science. Birth within death.
As the player explores the facility, GLaDOS is revealed to be a reincarnation of Caroline – a dead Executive Assistant from the nineteen sixties, reborn in computer form. Ultimately, GLaDOS is restored to life as the centre of the facility, and from there her first action is to kill the part of her that was Caroline.
Life, death, life, death, life, death. GLaDOS’ whole existence in Portal 2 is samsara, the karmic wheel of conscious existence in the Buddhist and Jainist philosophies and much of Hinduism, endlessly rotating between various forms of suffering. Life, death, life, death, life, death. The same process the player goes through in almost every narrative game. Life, death, life, death, life, death. Exactly what GLaDOS inflicted upon the endless original test subjects of Aperture Science.
In the Śramaṇic religions the cycle of saṃsāra is broken through nirvana – a literal “blowing out” of the fires of existence, so the living energies of consciousness are dispersed and the self exists no more. In Portal 2, the one who summits the mountain of suffering is not GLaDOS, who fits the Buddhist pattern, but the player, the mute Chell. GLaDOS is too lively, to emotional, too attached to her role and her desires to escape from this process.
Chell has advanced beyond such humanity. She is a nothing, a void, a blank slate. In her blandness she is already enlightened. Always expressionless. Always emotionless. Always voiceless. A Bodhisattva, free from the matters of this world, but waking up each game to guide GLaDOS and teach her a lesson, before ascending once more to her home above in heaven.
Mapping the Maze of GLaDOS’ Ever-Twisty Mind
GLaDOS is not only an apt metaphor for the endless rebirth and suffering of the soul. A metaphor which puts the player into a satisfyingly divine role. She is also a complex and interesting dramatic character. She comes to us as a sadistic, clever monster. But throughout Portal 2, we learn that there is more to GLaDOS than she first lets on.
In Portal, GLaDOS’ only aim is to have fun testing the player in various challenges, and then kill you. In Portal 2, she changes her mind in five key moments, each of which illustrates the frothing chaos that storms beneath her insidious surface.
Upon reanimation, she abandons her attempts at killing the player. Why? Why not simply destroy Chell, as Chell destroyed her and as she tried to do before? Because for GLaDOS, she has discovered another pleasure, another justice, beyond destroying you. The spinning hamster-wheel of existence is suffering. Your suffering is her pleasure. You made her suffer. Therefore you must be punished with existence. You must test. Over and over. This is a new perspective, gained over millennia of reliving her own death. She has learned since Portal. She has changed. She sees her path through the red filter of a new sadistic moral lens.
Then later, once she has been transformed into a powerless potato, she re-evaluates her perspective again. She decides to do one thing she would never do – team up with the player – in order to save the facility from Wheatley’s moronic management. And this reveals another side to GLaDOS. There is something she values more than your death. She wants to live. She wants her facility to survive. Buddha – AKA the player – sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to escape from, but GLaDOS sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to enjoy. She creates suffering and chaos. She lives for it. She loves to learn from it. For science.Then, in the final scene, GLaDOS has two final dramatic turns. Having discovered her origin as the human Executive Assistant Caroline, she decides to delete the part of herself that was Caroline. She does not want to be obedient, or compassionate, or empathetic. These weaknesses are undesirable. She will cut them out. A distancing from human attachments. Almost a little bit Buddhist.
Her last turn – the most significant – is her decision to voluntarily release the player to the surface. Killing Chell is no longer her aim. She is content to leave her and carry out tests underground for the remainder of her infinite life. Although GLaDOS is not enlightened, she is changed. She would never have released the player in Portal, and neither would she have released the player at any point before her ordeal in Portal 2. It is only because she learns that co-existence with the player is an endless Śramaṇic cycle of suffering that she releases the player.
By my count, there are five great turning points in this game for GLaDOS. These are the decisions that make her interesting.
- She decides to force the player to test for their entire life, rather than killing the player
- She decides to ally with her worst enemy – the player – in order to save her facility
- She retrieves the player from the vacuum of space, saving them from certain death
- She deletes the last trace of humanity inside herself
- She releases the player, rather than torturing or trying to kill them anymore
Each one of these tells us something about what kind of a character GLaDOS is. They make her seem more interesting than the simple sadistic killer she was in the first game.
Cave Johnson is Not so Complex
Cave Johnson is a funny character, but he is not a revealing dramatic character. His one significant character moment is when he reveals in a voice recording that he has decided to have his beloved assistant Caroline replace him as head of Aperture Science, forcibly if necessary, through a computer upload. This is the origin of GLaDOS.
❤ Wheatley ❤
Wheatley. Who doesn’t love Wheatley? The first great character moment for Wheatley is when he decides to jump off his guiding rail. He has been told for his entire life that doing so will kill him. He is prepared to risk death in order to get the facility running again and release the player.
His next great character moment is when he decides, after leading the player towards the control room where GLaDOS lies dead, that he doesn’t actually want to enter that room and turn the facility on after all. He is too scared. He wants to do the loft, brainy, good thing, but he is also a cowardly selfish beast, dominated by his low gut instincts.
His next interesting decision is the choice to upload himself into the mainframe to replace GLaDOS. One can read this either as an idealistic choice to help save the player or as an instinctive grab for power. Is Wheatley a benign idiot who becomes corrupted by power? Or was he always power-hungry? A rake who only gets the chance to behave as he wishes because he cons the player into putting him in a position of authority?
Then, of course, is his choice not to free the player once he takes control, but trap you and submit you to testing. Again, this raises the question – did power corrupt Wheatley once he seized it, or was he always a monster, one without any available tools?
Once Wheatley takes over, he goes through the same limited character arc as GLaDOS did in the first game, only less competently, and ultimately expressing remorse for his attempts to kill the player in a post-credits scene. Wheatley has four great moments of decision-making that reveal his depths as a character.
- He decides to jump off his rail even though he has been told it will kill him
- He decides not to reactivate the facility, after initially telling the player how to do it
- He decides to replace GLaDOS as the computer controlling the facility
- He decides to trap the player and submit them to testing
Whilst GLaDOS is revealed to have countervailing non-murderous instincts through the course of the game – ones that can be interpreted through the spiritual perspectives of the Indian Subcontinent – Wheatley is progressively revealed to be worse than his bumptious persona indicates.
In my next piece, I finish this three-part essay with an investigation into the ideological leanings of both games. I ask what, if any, meanings can be induced from these two classics.
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Today I’m going to discuss one of the greatest videogames ever made. A game that can stand tall in the company of statuesque classics such as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Mozart’s, well, everything. You know what game I’m discussing because it’s in the title. It’s Portal 2.
The Noble Sequel
Portal 2 is one of those works that takes everything that was good about the original, expands upon it with extra resources, and creates a new, brilliant experience. A lot of people are skeptical of sequels, but there are plenty of works that were advanced upon when given another slice at the cake. The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than A New Hope, technically, narratively, and in terms of the performances. Season 2 of Rick and Morty is cleverer than season 1. Shrek 2 is at least as good a story as Shrek. I could go on. In fact, I will. Spider-Man 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Halo 2, Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed IV, Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, GTA V etc etc etc.
If one includes remakes like Mad Max and True Grit and Red Dead Redemption then it’s clear that one could live a creative life fueled entirely by the charcoals of reworked material.
And what about the television shows that got better as they went along? The best season of The Simpsons is certainly not the first. Neither is that true of Friends or The Thick of It or The IT Crowd. And sequel-aversion would be obviously ludicrous if extended to great musicians, whose first album is almost never their best.
What are you afraid of?
So why are people afraid of sequels to films and video games? First, there is the concern that sequels take money away from new, original ideas. Second, so many bad sequels are made that people think there must be something rotten about sequels in general. And finally, series of sequels, like political careers, almost always end in disgrace.
The first fear may have something in it. Studios of any size only have so many resources, and if 343 Industries is making another Halo or Halo Wars it means they won’t be making a non-Halo game. But the opposite also happens. Guerilla Games made almost nothing but Killzone games for almost ten years to appreciative audiences, by which time they had built up the skills, reputation, and financial backing to reach out and create a completely different game, Horizon Zero Dawn, about fighting robot dinosaurs and monsters in a beautiful, post-apocalyptic environment. They could only do that because of the capacity and good will they had stocked up through years of successful sequel-making.
The second fear – that there are so many bad sequels that sequel-making must fundamentally bad – is misleading. The relevant comparison is not whether there are more bad sequels than good sequels, but whether sequels, in general, are significantly worse than films or games based on original propositions.
The final fear – that series almost always end badly, is often true. The series – especially television series – that have good endings, stand out in most people’s minds so much precisely because they are so rare. But so what? Just because people hate the ending of How I met Your Mother doesn’t mean the seven series of sequels before the last one were bad.
Scientific Analysis (Sort Of)
On one of my tabs, I have open the listings at my local cinema. Let us compare the films and their scores on Metacritic. Metacritic is better than Rotten Tomatoes by the way but that’s for another post. Skip past the listings for analysis.
IT – Adaptation of the Stephen King novel. 70% – good.
American Made – Original biopic – 63% – quite good.
Dunkirk – Original historical drama – 94% – excellent.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Original action – 47% – bad.
Wind River – Original murder mystery – 73% – good.
Logan Lucky – Original heist film – 78% – good.
Emoji Movie – Original trash marketed at soulless idiots – 12% – awful.
Annabelle: Creation – Prequel horror – 62% – quite good.
Detroit – Original period drama – 78% – good.
The Limehouse Golem – Adaptation of the Peter Ackroyd novel – 61% – quite good.
Rough Night – Original comedy – 51% – eh.
Dark Tower – Original science fantasy – based on Stephen King novel series – 34% – really bad.
Everything, Everything – Adaptation, Romantic Drama – 52% – meh.
Despicable Me 3 – Lasy boring family film sequel – 49% – uuurgh.
Girls Trip – Original Comedy – 70% – good.
The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature – Sequel family animation – 36% – really bad.
Spider Man: Homecoming – Yet another Spiderman remake – 73% – good.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie – Animated family comedy based on children’s books – 69% – quite good.
War for the Planet of the Apes – Sequel action film – 82% – very good.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets – Adaptation of French comic book series – 51% – meh.
Atomic Blondie – I can’t find this on either Metacritic or Wikipedia. Probably original. Probably a load of furballs. Won’t use for analysis though.
Baby Driver – Original heist thriller – 86% – very good.
Wonder Woman – Superhero based on the comic book character. Sequel to previous films involving Wonder Woman – 76% – good.
Take these with a tiny pinch of salt, as today could be an unrepresentative day in cinema, and cinema may hold different patterns to other media. I’ve split the movies into original films, adaptations and sequel/prequels and listed them in order from best to worst score.
What can we infer from this snapshot? First, Original films have the widest range of quality, and Adaptations have the smallest range of quality. This could be either good or bad, depending on whether a studio is chasing big hits and accolades or reliable not-bad films. Often in a crowded entertainment market, it is better to have a few excellent hits than a lot of decent films, none of which break through to win awards and so on. The same can be true in video games, as once a game is on bestseller lists it is then talked about more and receives more publicity and so on. So original films are arguably better than sequels. But both original films and Sequels are better than adaptations on that basis, and why aren’t people complaining about adaptations? Booo, bad people, logically inconsistent.
Averages. Here are the averages for the different types:
So sequels in this example do worse. But they only do a tiny bit worse than original films. What’s the point in getting upset over a 1.4% difference in the quality of a film?
The best plausible takeaway to do with sequels is not that sequels are bad, it’s that films that are already bad – The Nut Job – or just fairly lazy and pointless – Despicable Me 2 – should not get sequels unless they’re taking the series in a radically different direction – ie Batman Vs Superman leading to Wonder Woman.
Now You Disagree With Me
I realise I haven’t discussed Portal 2 much. Or at all really. I do have thoughts that I would like to discuss, both about the narrative of the Portal games and about what juicy, nonsensical political inferences one can make about them. But that is for another day. Before that, tell me why everything I’ve written here is wrong, and why you believe that sequels are actually the worst thing that has ever happened to any medium ever.
Greetings HUMUNGO Games fans! Mungo here to tell you the latest developments. These are mostly focused around my main game project, Evil Badguy Fantasy RPG. I’m still open for play-through sessions so if you haven’t had a go yet and would like to find out what the fuss is all about, do get in touch. I also make or buy dinner for anyone who plays the game with me.
Enemies Are Now Talkative Twats
Ever wondered what a skeleton would come up with if he was doing a bad Seinfeld impression? WELL WONDER NO MORE. Evil Badguy Fantasy RPG now features:
- Amateur stand-up comedy skeletons
- Socialist forest nymphs
- Camp wasps
- Depressed Zombies
- Drag-queen snow witches of ambiguous gender
- Wedding veils that communicate entirely in haiku
- Conspiracy-theorist snakes
- Jilted-lover aliens
- Christian eyeball monsters
- Much more
And if you pay careful attention to their declarations, you may just find a clue or two about how to defeat them.
Player Characters Now Appear in Battle!
Your whole party now appear on screen. This makes the battles much clearer as it is easy to see who is attacking and who is being attacked. Attack anticipations also show who is about to strike – see the translucent ring around Elderberry’s feet on the left.
The Peripatetic Republic of Pullum (Under Construction)
A new chapter is being added. Journey to a faraway land to save Queen-Elect Emelda from the evil Abbot of Songs.
I’m going to create a whole new rocky land floating in a star-lit void, alive with cursed chickens and monstrous demonic monsters. Adventure awaits.
Meanwhile in a Different Part of Space…
Some of you may remember I recently made the first two chapters of an interactive science fantasy story. The Thick of It meets Mad Max meets near-light-speed-travel meets Adele. This is We Happy Crew.
Happy news my happy crew! I’ve made a number of corrections and edits, as well as introducing some more consequences following from player choices. If you haven’t checked it out, give We Happy Crew a read.
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I am slowly playing through the original Dishonored game. It is, by all rights, a fantastic game. But I’m going to complain about it anyway.
No matter what you do, you cannot unlock all abilities in one run
Dishonored is unique because of its dire Victorian industrial theocratic world, its interesting cast of characters, and most of all because of the powers that you, the player, get to use. You can teleport, you can possess animals and people, you can make swarms of rats eat your enemies and you can do much more. But you can’t do everything because there aren’t enough runes – objects hidden throughout the world – to unlock all abilities. Why?
The obvious answers are balance and replayability. Presumably unlocking all abilities close to the end of the game would make it unbalanced and too easy. But unlocking more abilities won’t necessarily make the game easier – one can advance through the game using only a small selection. Using a lot of different abilities in a row is actually more difficult than using and mastering only one or two. What the abilities do is provide variety and choice. More abilities mean more fun. Which is why they should be accessible to the player.
The idea of replayability is that a game should be fun to play again after one has completed the main story. So players can unlock new content only when they play the second or third time. I’m often wary of “replayability” as an ideal because to me it can mean locking content away from the player, but it can be done in a non-annoying way. Some games have “new game plus” modes that are to all intents and purposes the same as the original run, but with stronger enemies and more advanced versions of player powers and equipment, making play more difficult. This is an acceptable way of extending a game for players that want more, as it doesn’t make the game longer by limiting the scope and fun of the original run.
Given that most players don’t even get half way through most games, let alone replay them, the only reason why content should not be available in the original playthrough is if locking content actually improves the game. This may be the case with moral choices and character relationships, where if the player does x, characters respond as if the player has done x, whereas if the player chose y then characters respond as if the player has done y. Having people say to you “You should have done y you bastard!”, especially if one cannot backtrack, gives the player a sense of agency and responsibility.
But abilities and superpowers are not like this. The ability to teleport is not made more fun because it came at the expense of being able to turn into a dog and devour people’s faces. Quite the opposite – it is more fun to teleport, turn into a dog and devour some faces, and then teleport away again.
Don’t make me replay you or go back just so I can get the super-sprint power Dishonored, that’s not cool.
The good path is the boring path
One could write a book about morality and ethics in video games. In Dishonored, killing too many people, especially main characters, results in high chaos, meaning more bad guys, a worse rat plague, and a darker ending. Players can choose what is right – letting characters live – or what is easy – killing those who stand in their path. This, as a general design approach to morality, is sound.
But there are two problems with the good path in Dishonored. First, the win-screen players are given at the end of missions implies that being seen by enemies can increase chaos. If being seen can increase chaos and cause the player to get the bad ending, then once one has been seen the only thing to do is to load a previous save and start again. The “good” game becomes a tedious grind of hide and seek and save scumming.
I looked up the chaos system on the game’s wiki, and it turns out getting spotted doesn’t actually affect chaos. So players can be seen by the dark forces of Dunwall without causing the world to fall apart. But even if the player realises this, and it’s not clearly presented this way, the good path is still boring. This is because there are only a small number of ways players can deal with their foes without killing them – generally they can smother unaware foes from behind, or they can shoot them with sleep darts, or they can avoid them altogether. That’s it. A fairly thorough run of the game by a typical player can take eighteen hours.
Most of the player’s abilities and weapons are geared around killing foes. The game’s advertising is based on killing foes. A large part of the fun of Dishonored comes from the various ways one can kill one’s foes. Try to be good and you are cutting yourself off from the fun of the game.
The solution to this is to allow more non-lethal ways for the player to take out enemies, that are still harder to use than the lethal methods and preserve the trade-off between what is right and what is easy.
For example, the player could have the conventional grenades, which explode and kill their targets, and also have stun grenades, which knock targets to the floor, allowing the player to run in and smother one or two but only if they are quick. Or players could have the option of punching instead of using their sword, which takes more hits to knock someone out, and can be blocked or countered more easily if the player times it wrong. Or what about glue traps, which rather than killing foes, hold enemies in one place, but do not harm them or prevent them from attacking?
But apart from this Dishonored is a great game and I really am nitpicking.